The kids unanimously agreed that after Paddle-To-The-Sea, Tree in the Trail was their next favorite Holling C. Holling geography book, followed by Seabird, and Minn of the Mississippi (we didn’t care so much for the last one, but looking forward to Pagoo next!)

Tree in the Trail explores the history of the Great Plains by following the life of a cottonwood tree that is discovered as a sapling in the early 1600s by a young Indian boy from a buffalo hunting Kansas tribe.

He builds a pile of rocks around the trunk of the cottonwood to protect it from being trampled by the herds of the great beasts, and hopes that one day, the tree will grow into a shady shelter for future generations of Indians who come to stop by the pond.

As the years go by, and the cottonwood tree grows, it becomes a living record of historical events, swallowing flint-tipped arrows from the Dakota Sioux in the 1620s, a dagger blade from the Spaniards of Santa Fe in the 1630s, and bullets from the flintlock rifles of trappers in the early 1800s.

When the cottonwood dies after 200 years, a trader named Jed Simpson from Ohio, cuts it down and turns a portion of the trunk into a new yoke for his oxen. Jed describes the new yoke as a “curio shop” and he intentionally leaves the artifacts inlaid between the tree rings on display. He counts the number of rings in the wood and burns on the date of each relic, so that in addition to keeping his oxen together, the yoke also becomes a traveling timeline that brings different people and tribes together, from Kansas to New Mexico!

There were many thought-provoking, humorous, and tense moments in this unique account of Western American history and geography, and it sparked a desire to learn more about the Southwestern portion of the United States, an area we haven’t studied much yet.

I’d recommend this beautifully illustrated living book, Tree in the Trail, as a family read aloud (great for Morning Basket time!).